Martin Kerr has been a fixture of the Edmonton music scene for over a decade, performing over 150 shows per year in every conceivable venue from clubs to the farmer’s market. However, he’s moving beyond local hero status with his new album Better Than Brand-New that, since its arrival on June 30, has garnered significant national sales chart action for his independent release.
Some of that is the result of Kerr’s recent live schedule, which included a sold-out show at Edmonton’s Winspear Centre in May that saw him accompanied by a nine-piece band. Then, on Canada Day, Kerr found himself opening for Sarah McLachlan at Edmonton’s Rogers Place.
The evolution of Kerr’s live show is a reflection of his overall musical approach on Better Than Brand-New. The album was recorded and produced by Juno-nominated producer Stew Kirkwood at his own Sound Extractor Studio, and the collaboration helped bring about a lush fullness to some of the tracks that Kerr was seeking.
Martin Kerr performs this weekend at the Canmore Folk Festival, and at the Edmonton Folk Festival, Aug. 10-13. He also plays an industry and media showcase at Toronto's The Rivoli on Aug. 24 (8pm sharp). For more info go to martinkerrmusic.com.
What makes Better Than Brand-New stand apart from your previous work?
This is the first time I made an album with grant funding, which allowed me to be more experimental in the studio without watching the clock. Some unexpected things happened in the studio, like the epic instrumental sections in “Disappear” and “Lovers in a Dangerous Time,” and co-writing three new songs in the studio with my brilliant producer, Stew Kirkwood.
One of those new songs became the title track. It’s also the first album where I'm writing about being a parent, and writing about controversial subjects, like the refugee crisis on “Must Be a Million.” The cover art is the best I've done so far as well, thanks to my hilarious kids and the brilliant photographer, Romy Young. And best of all, it's the first time I’ve had a top 10 album!
Is there a song on the record that you feel best represents your musical vision?
My view is pretty diverse. I always loved albums that had some intimate moments and some big, epic moments too. So that's what I've gone for on this record. “Disappear” is the one that stands out to me as encapsulating most of the sounds I love. It’s the only song I've written where the lyrics are fictional rather than about a personal experience. The instrumental section reminds me of Radiohead.
Of the mellower ones, I love how “My Old Shoes” turned out. It's a much more confessional song, and it came to me all at once, one night during the making of the record. Lyrically that's the one that's most relevant to me right now. It’s also the first song I've written in an alternate tuning.
You've played some big shows recently. How would you describe how things have been evolving for you in the last couple of years?
So many dreams have come true this year. But it’s also been hard work! I've been doing music full-time for ten years and been lucky enough to support my family with it. But all the while I was flying under the radar of the music industry, mostly playing private events. I made a lot of fans and sold 20,000 CDs, but never did much in the public eye.
A year ago a friend of mine volunteered to help me with my social media and merch sales. Soon he became my manager, and together we've been able to step up my game.
My recent show at the Winspear Centre was the fulfillment of a long-held dream. It’s the most beautiful concert hall I know of and I've seen some great shows there. It was a real leap of faith to book a 1700-seat theatre on my dime, and promote it ourselves—just me and my buddy Anthony. We sold it out and put on a memorable show: nine-piece band, a 100-voice choir, standing ovation, encores. It was quite the night.
My first stadium show followed soon after, playing with Sarah McLachlan, who is now my favourite person. She's an absolute legend and was so kind. She came to chat with me before the show, listened to my whole set from the side of the stage, gave me a big hug as I came off stage, and then called me back up on stage at the end of her set and gave me a big kiss in front of the whole stadium.
My wife was super jealous because she wanted to kiss Sarah! The next dream coming true is playing Edmonton Folk fest, on my birthday.
You've been a fixture on the Edmonton music scene. What has made it the place for you to base yourself from?
True love is what brought me here, but Edmonton is a great place to be an independent artist. The music community is very collaborative and supportive. The people here love to support local talent and to make things happen. There are tons of festivals, great farmer's markets, and busking spots, and more and more people are hosting house concerts.
I've been playing well over 100 gigs a year in Edmonton alone for the past eight or nine years straight. With that said, I had pretty much opted out of the “music scene” as people usually think of it—namely playing late-night gigs in bars and clubs.
When I first committed to doing music full-time, it seemed like the bands and singer-songwriters were all trying to play at the same few venues for mostly the same people. And nobody was making a decent living. So I decided to find my path and my audience, by playing everywhere else: at markets, churches, schools, backyard parties, charity events. Every performance seemed to lead to several other opportunities, and soon I was super busy.
What song by another artist do you wish you had written?
“Scare Away the Dark” by Passenger. It's an anthem for our times: "Sing, sing at the top of your voice. Love without fear in your heart. Feel, feel like you still have a choice. If we all light up we can scare away the dark." When he came to play at the Winspear here in Edmonton, it was packed to the rafters. I got to meet him before the show by hanging around outside the stage door before he arrived for sound check. He did “Scare Away the Dark” for his final song and got the whole audience on their feet singing at the top of their lungs. When he left the stage, somebody started singing the chorus again. Pretty soon all 1,700 people joined in, and we sang and sang until he came back out for an encore. Such a great moment.